What is hand pain?
Hand pain includes any kind of discomfort in the tissues or joints of the hand or fingers. Hand pain may be described as throbbing, aching, increased warmth, tingling, soreness, or stiffness. Burning or prickling sensations in the hand or fingers, often called pins and needles, are paresthesias. Paresthesias are often due to temporary or permanent damage or pressure on the nerves that carry sensation messages from the hand and fingers to the spinal cord.
The hand is made up of nerves, bones, blood vessels, muscles, and skin. Muscles provide motion, and tendons anchor your hand muscles to the bones. Nerves control sensation and movement of the hand and fingers, and blood vessels ensure continuous blood circulation to and from the tips of the fingers through the hand and arm.
Hand joints, such as the knuckles, are the areas where bones meet. Joints are complicated structures and consist of cartilage, ligaments that hold bones together, bursas (fluid-filled sacs that help cushion the joint), and synovial membranes and fluid, which lubricate the joints. Any of these structures in the hand or joints can become injured, irritated, inflamed and painful in response to a variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders and conditions.
Common causes of hand pain include injury or trauma, such as a boxer’s fracture of the hand, or from repetitive use, such as long periods of keyboarding, which can lead to tenosynovitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Arthritis is another very common cause of hand pain. More serious conditions, such as diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, can also cause pain or a burning sensation in your hand and fingers.
Because hand pain can be a sign of a serious condition, such as infection or fracture, you should contact your medical professional about your symptoms. Seek prompt medical care if you have unexplained, persistent or recurrent hand pain. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if your hands have been exposed to freezing temperatures and have changed color or lost feeling, or if you have severe hand pain, a serious burn, a deformity, or uncontrolled bleeding. Other serious symptoms include a high fever with swelling, redness, warmth of the hand, or red streaks up the arm.
What other symptoms might occur with hand pain?
Other symptoms may occur with hand pain. Additional symptoms vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, hand pain due to a serious infection that has spread to the blood may be accompanied by swelling, fever and chills, as well as redness and warmth around the affected area.
Other symptoms that may occur with hand pain include:
Arm or wrist pain
Bruising or other discoloration
Decreased grip strength
Difficulty performing fine motor movements, such as writing or keyboarding
Drainage or pus
Fingernail problems, such as bruising under the nail or detachment of the nail
Lacerations, abrasions, sores or lesions
Lumps or bumps along the finger
Reduced range of motion or movement of a joint
Swelling of the hand or joints
Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition
In some cases, hand pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have these other symptoms:
Change in color or sensation of your hand or fingers after cold exposure
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
Inability to move the finger, wrist or arm
Partial or total amputation of a finger(s)
Red, warm and tender skin, especially with a red streak up the arm
Severe hand, wrist or finger pain
Uncontrolled bleeding or deep laceration
Visible deformity of the hand, wrist or a finger
What causes hand pain?
Hand pain can be caused by irritation and inflammation due to a variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders and conditions, such as trauma, infection, autoimmune diseases, and nerve compression. For example, tingling pain in the fingers can be due to compression of the nerves that carry sensation messages from the hand and fingers to the spinal cord.
Hand joints, such as the knuckles, are particularly vulnerable to injury and other conditions, such as arthritis. Joints are complicated structures and consist of cartilage, ligaments that hold bones together, bursas (fluid-filled sacs that help cushion the joint), and synovial membranes and fluid, which lubricate the joints.
In some cases, hand pain is a symptom of a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting, such as a broken bone or invasive bacterial infection.
Injury-related causes of hand pain
Hand pain can occur from the following types of injuries:
Contusion or abrasion
Degloving injury (separation of the skin and top layer of tissue from the finger and possibly the hand)
Fractured finger, hand or wrist bone
Hand ligament sprain
Hand muscle strain
Laceration or blunt force trauma such as a dog bite
Splinter or other foreign body
Degenerative, infectious and inflammatory causes of hand pain
Hand pain can be associated with inflammatory or infectious conditions, or problems associated with aging and wear and tear on joints over time including:
Bursitis (inflammation of a bursa sac that protects and cushions joints)
Cellulitis (invasive skin infection that can spread to the surrounding tissues)
Ganglion cyst (benign growth or swelling on top of a joint or tendon)
Infection, such as cellulitis caused by a Staphylococcus aureus bacterial infection
Osteoarthritis (breakdown of joint cartilage over time causing stiffness and pain) and age-related wear and tear on the joints
Paronychia (infection around the nail)
Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)
Septic arthritis (infectious arthritis or infection of a joint)
Tendonitis (inflammation of a tendon)
Tenosynovitis (inflammation of the sheaths that enclose tendons)
Neurological causes of hand pain
Hand pain and tingling or numbness in the fingers may be caused by moderate to serious conditions that compress nerves and can lead to nerve damage. A variety of other conditions can also cause more widespread nerve damage. Neurological causes of hand pain include:
Carpal tunnel syndrome (compression in the wrist area of the nerve that provides feeling and movement to the palm and thumb side of the hand)
Cervical spondylosis (degenerative disk disease in the neck)
Heavy metal poisoning such as lead poisoning
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Neuroma (mass or tumor that grows on a nerve)
Peripheral neuropathy (damage to the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord)
Spinal cord injury or tumor
Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)
Other causes of hand pain
Hand pain can be associated with other conditions including:
Buerger’s disease (acute inflammation and clotting of arteries and veins of the fingers)
Frostbite or extremely cold temperatures
Raynaud’s disease or phenomenon (spasms of small blood vessels of the fingers and toes, reducing blood circulation). Raynaud’s disease is when the cause is not known. Raynaud's phenomenon is secondary to another condition, including many autoimmune disorders such as lupus.
Questions for diagnosing the cause of hand pain
To diagnose the underlying cause of hand pain, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your symptoms. Providing complete answers to these questions will help your provider diagnose the cause of your hand pain:
What is the exact location of the pain?
Describe the pain. Is it sharp or dull, tingling or burning? When did it start? How long does it last? Does the pain occur during or after certain activities?
Have you had any recent injuries, including exposure to cold or frostbite?
Do you have any other symptoms, such as swelling?
What is your full medical history? What medications do you take? Do you smoke?
Complications associated with hand pain vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition and can be serious. It is important to contact your health care provider when you experience persistent pain or other symptoms related to your fingers, hands or wrists. Following the treatment plan you and your health care provider develop specifically for you will minimize the risk of complications including:
Gangrene (tissue death) and amputation
Inability to perform daily tasks
Permanent finger or hand deformity
Spread of infection to other tissues including the blood (septicemia)